Book review: ‘Almost Famous Women’

You were this close.

You almost had it. Missed it by a hair, by just a smidge. You were slightly off the mark; in fact, almost too close to call. You didn’t get the cigar.

Contrary to the old saying, close counts in more than just horseshoes and hand grenades. The proof lies inside “Almost Famous Women” by Megan Mayhew Bergman.

Take, for example, Daisy and Violet Hilton.

Performers back in the 1920s, the sisters were in high demand, on-stage and off. Even Houdini was a fan. Men, especially, were attracted to them but the sisters kept no secrets from one another.

They couldn’t. They were conjoined twins, literally attached at the hip.

Or take, for example, M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, who’d been an ambulance driver in World War I. Joe was tough as nails and extravagantly wealthy, the perfect hostess on her own island off the coast of Florida. But she was fast, both on the water and in her willingness to find, love, and discard women.

Norma Millay was a first-class actress who took her “dirt-poor” childhood and used it to bring her roles to life. Even critics noticed though, admittedly, her performances weren’t exactly well-attended; it also hurt that Norma’s famous sister, Edna Vincent, was quick to point out on whose “coattails” she was riding.

High-end European art houses very desperately wanted more from artist Romaine Brooks, but Brooks ignored them and everyone else from her past. At age 90, she took “joy in nothing,” and only thought of things that made her hateful. Her anger was taken out on staff, but they got their revenge: they took her belongings.

Butterfly McQueen wanted her life — and her afterlife — spent on her own terms; and a crate of lipstick brought quiet notoriety to a small group of Holocaust survivors. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm would have been more famous, had it not been for the colors of their skin. Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly, lived a life nearly as scandalous as that of her famous uncle. And 4-year-old Allegra Byron, illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron, cared for lovingly by a reluctant Capuchin nun, didn’t live long enough to become famous.

Biographies. That’s what I expected when I cracked open “Almost Famous Women.” I thought it was a book of mini-bios but instead, what I got was a collection of short stories — and I think I liked that better.

While researching for other projects, author Megan Mayhew Bergman says in her author’s notes that she came across these women and their stories and, after thinking about small bits of their lives, she wrote these dramatic tales, loosely based on real people and real events. In doing so, she gives readers a better sense of who these edge-of-history, complicated women might have been and who, furthermore, might have known and loved (or hated!) them.

And I think you’ll love them. The stories, that is: They’re easy to fall into and the lengths are pleasantly reader-friendly. What more could you want, except to keep “Almost Famous Women” close?

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Terri Schlichenmeyer is owner of The Bookworm Sez, LLC.

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